In most role-playing games the player eventually stumbles across the sleepy town of whatever.
The player goes to the store and talks to the man or woman who perpetually stands at the front desk. They will always be standing there, and there is never a time when they will not be. The player buys a potion from that nameless person. Then the player walks out and murders more stuff.
I’d always found that odd. Why don’t we know more about non-player characters? It seems unjust that I spend so much time sculpting my character – I know her friends, I know that her father’s death at the hands of the empire is what led her on this quest in the first place – yet I know nothing about the person who sold me that potion.
It took me many attempts to finally crack into Undertale. Usually the malaise I eventually slip into with 8bit RPG’s would hit me when I was navigating some inconsequential puzzle or fighting a dog or talking to a skeleton that is supposed to be cute and subvert RPG tropes. I’d quit the game and tell myself “I’ll play this in six months.”
Then I arrived in Undertale’s first town.
I walk into the bar and see the dog I fought before. It’s sitting next to another anthropomorphic beast-thing I talked to. They’re drinking after a long day of standing in the cold until I arrived so they could fight me. They’re surprised I came to see them.
I had never worked in a mall until a few months ago.
I manage an upscale apparel store in a high-rent mall in Chicago. The first thing your body acclimates to is the lack of natural light. The second is the bizarre time dilation that occurs when you close shop and step outside into the dark – the last time your body was outside the sun was up. What I’m still trying to digest is the innerworkings of the other vendors and tenants. I see my neighbor in the mall walking to lunch with the manager of “Glove me Tender” on the fifth floor. I don’t hear them but they smile and gesture like they’ve eaten lunch together hundreds of times and they probably have. They might wave to me as they pass. I’ve become a part of a thriving and secret ecosystem that I previously had no idea existed.
When they go back to work they sigh and burp and look at the time on their phones. Then a customer comes into the store and their backs straighten. They exchange formalities with their guest and smile. They answer questions and go get a size six off the rack because the size eight is too large. Then they sell them things. In the mall the customer is the player character and we are the NPCs. We go to work every day, at the same time, to sell things to the player character. We wouldn’t be there if the player character didn’t come in to buy things (we would be unemployed, please support your local retailers.) We stand perpetually behind the counter and wait for you to come in. You don’t need to know our back story, because you’re there to buy things, not to know our back story. Or at least that’s how the traditional retail model has functioned for, well, forever.
At the company I work for we embrace what we refer to as “human-centric” customer service. The objective of this model is very simple – just be a human, be yourself. Treat your customers as human. You eat, sleep, talk, sex, just like they do. It sounds simple, but as somebody who has worked in retail for a very long time it takes a lot of psychological deprogramming to stop doing what you’ve trained yourself to do for so long: act. The traditional retail model is based on the idea of performance. You are on your stage (behind the counter) and fill the role as a surrogate for the company’s ideals, products and ethos. Our company tries to gut that model. What we’ve found is that something beautiful happens when the customer does know your back story. They might not know that they want to hear it, but once they do, they’re no longer just talking to the company, but to a person. It’s the Cheers effect.
What I’ve gleaned from this personally is that people are lonely even when they don’t recognize it.
We float through our lives and talk to our spouses and friends and forget that there are so many people around us that we know nothing about, and don’t acknowledge that we could care about them, if we only knew who they were inside. There is a reason why the homeless man at the corner of Michigan and Delaware holds a sign that tells his story. It’s not because he thought it might be fun to go find a sharpie and a sheet of cardboard in a dumpster. It’s because he’s a human too. What makes him a human is the experiences he has accumulated through his life. He holds that sign in the hopes that you will understand, that you will reflect on your life and realize that the two of you are fundamentally the same. You might even be wearing the same North Face coat, he just needs it more than you do.
I don’t think we will ever arrive at a point in game making where we know what the person who sold us a potion had for breakfast. I don’t really care what they had for breakfast, I want a potion and a mithril dagger so I can go murder more stuff, but I think we can and will find a happy medium. There must be some space for explaining and making human the individuals that the player walks past in their journey. As our medium matures we’re trying so hard to do so, the woman wailing her infinite wail in the corner of whatever town you visit is desperately trying to tell you, the player, that she’s real.
When I walked in to that bar in Undertale I was struck by what I felt, that I connected with these individuals who stood in the snow all day, waiting for me to arrive so they could show me an experience. After leaving the bar I imagined that the dog might stumble home and tell its spouse about what a crazy day it had. A human – yes, a human – not only fought it, but came in to the bar and chatted for a while. The dog and its spouse would then cuddle up in bed since it’s snowing outside in Snowdin (and Chicago) and gather their extremities for warmth. They would lick each other some and fall in to a deep sleep, dreaming of the human that came into the bar.